Spooky Season Unmasked: How Romantic Comedies Haunt Couples Therapy

| Hallie Barnhill, LMFTA

The leaves begin to change colors, the air gets chillier, and pumpkins take over doorsteps all over – we now know that we have officially entered spooky season. Spooky season brings Halloween movies, haunted houses, and tales of the supernatural dominating storytelling. In the spirit of the mysterious season, I am going to discuss a different kind of haunting – one that doesn’t include ghosts or goblins, but instead the lurking presence in the world of romantic comedies. With their charming nature and view of life through the lens of rose colored glasses, it should be no surprise that they influence our perceptions of love and relationships. This often casts a shadow over couples therapy with their idealized romance, perfection, and grand gestures. Let’s take a deeper dive into how these may show up in our relationships as well as the therapy room. 

Idealized Notions of Romance

This first haunting of romantic comedies is the presentation of romance that makes it both captivating and misleading. From a very young age, we are consuming information around fairy tales with whirlwind romances, breathtaking gestures, grand declarations of love, and happily-ever-afters. While these allow us to escape our ordinary day to day life, their enchanting nature can also plant seeds of unrealistic expectations for our own relationships. The reality is that these rom coms have the ability to be perfectly scripted, which is not the case in the complex and multidimensional world of relationships. Couples therapy can help to bridge the gap between these two worlds and help couples understand that true romance is not just about the grand gestures – it also includes the daily acts of kindness, respect, empathy, and understanding that help sustain a genuine and lasting connection. 

The Pursuit of Perfection

The second haunting of rom coms revolves around the multiple ways in which they emphasize a character’s journey towards pursuing perfection. In these films you see characters searching for their ideal partner, upholding a checklist of every desirable quality they can imagine, with an unwillingness to give up on getting all boxes checked. While these storylines provide entertainment, they are also seeping into our own expectations for relationships and a partner. The reality is that none of us are perfect, we all come with our own quirks and flaws and therefore need to leave room for others to have them as well. Being stuck in this fantasy of needing the perfect partner can actually hinder the ability to build a genuine connection and grow in a relationship. Couples therapy emphasizes that true love embraces the quirks and flaws of our partners by helping to foster a sense of acceptance. This can help partners embrace one another’s imperfections, as well as their own, in order to create an environment where love can flourish authentically. 

Miscommunication as a Plot Device

The third haunting of rom coms involves the use of miscommunication – which is often seen as a clever plot device to drive the storyline and create a source of laughter and drama.  These misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and errors in judgment can lead to frustration, distrust, and confusion in a relationship off the big screen. In fact, communication difficulties are one of the most common reasons couples seek therapy, which is why it seeks to unmask the potential harm of romantic miscommunication by teaching individuals how to navigate conflicts and communicate effectively. The goal is to reinforce the importance of understanding one another by employing the practice of open, honest, and empathetic conversations. To sum it up, while the entertainment industry relies on misunderstandings for comedic value, couples therapy empowers individuals to practice healthy, productive communication in the real world. 

Grand Gestures and Expectations

The fourth haunting sets the stage by painting vivid pictures of love, involving grand gestures that aim to leave us in awe. One expression of this that comes to mind is a scene with a couple going their separate ways and one is in the airport about to leave forever. The other realizes at the last minute that they do not want this person to leave, so they go to the airport and try to chase them down to profess their undying love in an attempt to stop them from leaving. While heartwarming, the unrealistic nature of this I believe begins with the slim chance that this could ever happen – I mean have you all ever been in an airport? You’re not getting through security to get to the gate, but somehow in these movies they always do. However you view it, these depictions set the belief that these are the indicators that determine true love. In reality, while grand gestures are nice, I’ll say it again – it’s the small everyday acts that are key to relationships. Couples therapy helps to recalibrate expectations by emphasizing these mundane yet consistent acts instead of focusing on the grand occasional gestures. This shift in emphasis within a relationship leads to creating a deeper, more authentic connection that blows the ones on the screen away. 

Love as the Ultimate Goal

The fifth haunting involves upholding love as the ultimate goal. Rom coms tend to emphasize an overall focus on one’s love life, while diminishing the other aspects. This focus inadvertently sends the message that one’s love life is the most important part of their life, and is used as a measure of determining one’s success and happiness. This perspective can overshadow the significance of personal growth, self-love, and other meaningful pursuits in one’s life. In couples therapy, individuals are encouraged to understand that while romantic love is important, it is only one aspect of a well-rounded and fulfilling life. By nurturing individual aspirations and personal development alongside their romantic relationships, individuals can create a richer, more balanced life, ultimately strengthening the foundation of their partnership. Couples therapy helps couples navigate this delicate balance, highlighting that love, while beautiful, should not be the sole destination in the complex journey of life. 

Navigating Conflict 

The sixth haunting breaks down rom coms ideas around conflict. Think back to a time when you read a book and then decided to watch the movie or tv show for it. Did it leave you feeling that important aspects of the storyline were left out of the movie or tv show version? In rom coms, we often observe a similar discrepancy. Conflict is oversimplified with resolution of misunderstandings and relationship issues happening within the span of a few scenes or a montage of happy moments. While this is necessary for the movies and tv shows, it often leads us to underestimate the complexity and length of time needed for real-life conflict resolution. Couples therapy shines a light on the importance of addressing and resolving conflicts in a healthy and constructive way that takes time. In this safe space, there is an introduction of new ways to approach and engage with one another around issues to foster open, empathetic dialogue. This ultimately creates an environment where conflicts can be approached as opportunities for growth and understanding. This differs from the beliefs that stem from the neatly tied bows seen in romantic comedies. Couples therapy helps to unravel these in order to recognize that conflict is natural in relationships – and when handled properly, can strengthen the bond between partners, allowing them to grow together through the ups and downs of life. 

The Need for Realism

The seventh and final discussion point involves realism. People love rom coms and their ability to whisk us away into a world where love conquers all, often embracing extravagant and idealized notions of romance. While this is entertaining and captivating, it’s crucial to recognize that these stories are constructed for entertainment and escapism rather than as practical relationship guides. The need for realism in our perceptions of love and relationships is paramount. Romantic comedies should be appreciated for their entertainment value, but real-life partnerships require a more balanced perspective. Couples therapy provides a valuable bridge between the fantasy of rom coms and the realities of everyday relationships, helping individuals set realistic expectations, communicate effectively, and work through conflicts in a way that acknowledges the messiness of human connections. In the end, by grounding our understanding of love and relationships in realism rather than in the scripted perfection of rom coms, we can better navigate the challenges and joys of genuine, lasting love. 

As we embrace the spooky season and all things mysterious and enchanting, let’s not forget that sometimes the most haunting influences on our relationships can come from the most unexpected places. Romantic comedies may paint a beautiful picture of love, but when the masks come off, it’s couples therapy that can help us navigate the complex, sometimes messy, but ultimately rewarding journey of real-life love and relationships. 

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